Series Preview: Baltimore Orioles

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones (10) hits a single in the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Red Sox are two games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the standings at the start of a three-game series against them. Wouldn't it be swell if Boston could leapfrog them in one fell swoop, never to look back?

Things are rarely that easy, of course, and even if Baltimore isn't quite ready to win the difficult AL East just yet, that doesn't mean their roster is poor. This is a solid team, one that could very well finish over .500 in the toughest division in baseball, and that means sweeps are going to be tough at any time. But hey, we can dream of better days.

Game 1: Jason Hammel (61-2/3 IP, 3.1 K/BB, 134 ERA+) vs. Jon Lester (67-2/3 IP, 2.2 K/BB, 89 ERA+)

Game 2: Wei-Yen Chen (60 IP, 2.1 K/BB, 110 ERA+) vs. Josh Beckett (63-1/3 IP, 2.9 K/BB, 100 ERA+)

Game 3: Brian Matusz (63-1/3 IP, 2.0 K/BB, 94 ERA+) vs. Clay Buchholz (64-1/3 IP, 1.3 K/BB, 65 ERA+)

Remember when Jon Lester had an effective cutter? The lack of it in 2012 has been a problem, but in his last outing, he was able to punch out more batters than he had innings pitched for the first time all season. It's not quite the Lester of old, but this late in the season, you hope it's the start of something new -- especially since he didn't walk a single Tiger. He'll take on Jason Hammel tonight, who has had no issues at all in his return to the AL East.

Chen has looked good with Baltimore to start his own career in America, and, along with Hammel, is part of the reason the Orioles find themselves in second place right now. Josh Beckett will be opposing him, after a disappointing appearance against the Tigers in which he couldn't induce swings-and-misses. Like Lester, inconsistency has been an issue in 2012.

Brian Matusz dominated Boston last time out, but Clay Buchholz has similarly started to come around. A 6.58 ERA might not seem impressive, but considering it was 9.09 at this time last month... well, things start to get some perspective. Buchholz struck out seven and walked two in eight innings against the Blue Jays in his first start of June, in part due to throwing 21 change-ups, five of which induced whiffs. The more he's throwing that change-up, the likelier it is he succeeds, so look for that pitch on Thursday.

As for the lineups, Boston has Dustin Pedroia back at second base (and presumably hitting second) as of Tuesday. They survived without him just fine, but having Pedroia around beats the alternative. It's not the lineup anyone envisioned back in March, but it's somehow third in the AL in True Average and third in the majors in runs despite the obvious absences. Baltimore can hit, but even a healthy O's squad isn't setup as well as ailing Boston (though, in their own bout of good news, Adam Jones has been cleared to play once more). The difference, as has been the usual with the Red Sox this year, will come down to which team can get it done on the mound.

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